Tackling poverty: DC community tries new approach

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The corner Safeway is long gone, closed after looting following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Some residents have no choice but to buy groceries from an old ice-cream truck. Others rely on men known as “riders” who transport shoppers for a few bucks.

Occasional gunshots ring out even as the days of out-of-state drivers lining the streets to buy drugs are largely over. Young children are everywhere except during school hours, when many are scattered far from home at 150 schools around the nation’s capital because of a long history of subpar education in the neighborhood.

This is the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood, where residents such as Taryn Tymus, a mother of four who sells homemade jewelry, have heard lots of promises about a better life to come. The promise of a new recreation center after theirs was torn down. The promise of owning their public housing units. Promises of better schools.

Promises all unfulfilled.

Then, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative put down a stake with a new promise: to tackle generational poverty with a fresh approach.

Backed by a multiyear, $28 million Education Department Promised Neighborhood grant and support from people such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, the initiative tries to offer services to two generations — parents and children. It stems from research that shows that as a parent’s level of education improves, so does a child’s prospects.

Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, “promised neighborhoods” are being planned or underway in at least 20 states.

In the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood, helping the children get a good education is a primary focus, but it’s the adults who must be engaged first. Many are skeptical.

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Tymus, 38, is proud to call this predominantly African-American neighborhood home. But she doesn’t hesitate to point out the downsides: the six-lane highway families must cross to get to a subway station; the high-priced Kenilworth Market, robbed so many times that cinderblocks now cover the backdoor; teenagers having babies; the violence.

Tymus says she warns young men to stay out of trouble. “It hurt, when they really go down like that,” says Tymus, who greets neighbors by name as she strolls Quarles Street not far from where one of her boyfriends was found dead in a church lot a decade ago, 22 bullets in him.

Here, single mothers run nearly 90 percent of the households with children. The dads are mostly missing.

The isolationism only makes things harder. The neighborhood not far from the Capitol is bordered by I-295, the Anacostia River and an aging power plant.

Things haven’t always felt so bleak.

Within Kenilworth-Parkside is Eastland Gardens, where residents since the 1950s have maintained a flower club. In addition to hundreds of public housing units, brick single-family homes line the streets, some of them designed and built by black architects and builders.

“We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor because we always had something to eat and some place to stay,” says Claudette Brown, one of eight siblings who were among the first residents of Kenilworth Courts when it opened in 1959. It was one of the city’s first integrated public housing complexes. Now a grandmother, she still calls Kenilworth home.

Brown recalls the strife, too. After King’s assassination, mobs threw rocks at her school bus on her way home because the driver was white. “People were acting real crazy,” she says.

Violence and drugs in later years rocked the neighborhood, sending residents to prison and leaving others dead. In the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood’s problems attracted the interest of Jack Kemp, the New York congressman and later U.S. housing secretary.

Working with resident Kimi Gray, he helped orchestrate a federal effort to turn public housing in Kenilworth over to residents to manage and eventually own. The personal ownership plans never fully materialized and while residents still manage a section of the housing, the District of Columbia Housing Authority had to step in and bail it out.

Kenya McKeever, 44, a mother of four, says one day she stepped outside to dump the garbage and two dead bodies were in a car. “It affected me in a way that I never want to see that again,” McKeever says.

Two different fathers of longtime resident Latissa Tate’s 10 children died violent deaths. One of the men was standing in a store buying cigarettes in 2006 when he was killed in a drive-by shooting, she says.

She says her children are coping, but she worries about them every time they walk out the door. “I pray,” Tate says. “I believe in the Lord and I put it in his hand. We get through it day by day.”

In 2010, residents were hopeful when the neighborhood recreation center was razed, with plans by the Interior Department to rebuild it. But plans were stalled because environmental contaminants were found on site, where children still play, stemming from a former dump that decades earlier had billowed black smoke.

Then, three years later came news that upset many residents. Kenilworth Elementary was to close.

Miprecious Angel Coley

This photo taken Feb. 27, 2014 shows Miprecious Angel Coley, 9, doing her homework at the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) after-school center in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood of Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Children wept at a meeting when the school closing was announced, Tate says. At that time, there were 147 students in the 55,000 square foot building. Only about one-quarter of the students were performing at grade level in reading and math, but there was a strong sense of community tied to the school.

Meanwhile, the promised neighborhood initiative was moving forward. It was the brainchild of Irasema Salcido, the charismatic founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, which opened a middle- and high school campus in the neighborhood in 2005.

Salcido says “parents were hugging me and crying” when she said she would get their children ready for college. What she quickly discovered was that the students coming to her were well behind. She met with two area elementary school principals and heard something similar: preschoolers and kindergarteners lagged from Day One.

At a ladies’ coffee, Salcido was introduced to Alma Powell, head of the board of directors for America’s Promise Alliance. The two shared a common dream of creating something similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone in the nation’s capital.

“It’s one thing to get all of this started,” Mrs. Powell says. “It’s a whole another thing to keep it going.”

The initiative set up shop in the abandoned Kenilworth school building and converted former classrooms into computer labs and children’s play areas. The old gym became a boxing training area with a ring. Computer training for adults was started and a parent resource center opened at Neval Thomas Elementary School, another neighborhood school. After-school programming was rolled out, providing youngsters and teenagers with homework help, hip-hop dancing, boxing and digital media learning.

Workers such as Sharita Slayton, a resident hired to be the community liaison, were spotted at church socials and housing association meetings shaking hands and handing out fliers. “We have a second chance to get it right,” Slayton told anyone who would listen.

Officials early on helped relocate 100 of the former Kenilworth school kids to Neval Thomas. That meant many could report every morning to their old school where they are loaded on a bus and taken a mile away.

McKeever and other parents were leery. Who were these people? What was their motivation? “A lot of people come, but they don’t stay,” McKeever says.

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Already, the after-school program has won over some parents, and their children.

Phillip Crooms Jr., 13, is performing in a production of “The Wiz” put on by the after-school kids. He says the program “keeps my mind off the negative stuff.”

His mother, Sonya Jones, said Phillip has been picked on at multiple schools, at one point getting a concussion after being hit in the head. Now, she takes the subway with him as he commutes to Eliot-Hine Middle School because she worries about him getting in a fight.

She’s considered the Cesar Chavez charter school on the other end of the neighborhood, but “anything can happen” with that long a walk.

“I would love to live in a different neighborhood, I really would, where I know he’s getting an education and I don’t have to worry about anything happening to him there,” Jones said. She said she recently lost her job because of issues related to taking care of him.

“I’m a single parent,” Jones says. “Of course my son comes first.”

Also at the after-school center, boxing coach Umar Abdus-Salaam keeps a watchful eye on three of the Tate brothers, whose father died.

Abdus-Salaam takes all the boys he coaches not just to boxing matches but on fishing trips and to sporting events. The city bus driver said very few of the boys he works with have biological fathers around and some have mothers addicted to drugs. Some don’t get enough calories to gain the pounds needed to move up in weight classes as they should, he said.

“These kids need love,” Abdus-Salaam says. “They need to know that they are cared about … We show them tough love and exposure amongst other things.”

Abdus-Salaam says he preaches to the boys about the value of being a good citizen and staying out of a prison cell. “We have a goal of trying to live an adult life without entering the penal system,” Abdus-Salaam says.

Tate says the coach has been a father figure to her sons. “Being a mom, there are certain things I can’t do that a man can do, so he helps me,” Tate says.

Mrs. Powell said she was delighted when teenagers in one of the programs put together digital media campaigns on preventing teenage pregnancy. In one, a large teenage boy dressed like a baby to illustrate how difficult parenthood is.

“Many of them don’t know how to be fathers because they didn’t have one,” she says. “They think it’s normal to walk away.”

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Initiative leaders know it takes much more than after-school programs to transform a neighborhood.

All “promised neighborhoods” must carefully track data about the communities they serve but also the success or failures of what they’re doing. The model requires partnerships with many organizations so multiple needs can be addressed at once.

In Kenilworth-Parkside, the initiative has about 25 partners such as Educare, a high-quality school for young, at-risk kids connected to Warren Buffett that opened a center in the neighborhood. Another is the city’s Housing Authority, which is attempting to overhaul the Kenilworth Courts housing project. But a request for a $30 million federal housing grant to complement the initiative’s work was turned down, dashing hopes at least in the short term for new retail space that might have attracted a grocery.

Workers from the initiative are on site at Neval Thomas and Cesar Chavez schools, and grant dollars have helped provide computer tablets, after-hours programs at Cesar Chavez, a math coach and more.

But with programming just rolling out in the last year, it’s too early to judge what’s working. The initiative will receive federal grant dollars until 2017.

One of the top programs has yet to start: essentially assigning a personal assistant to about 40 of the neighborhood’s neediest families. This person will advise them in all aspects of their lives, such as how to enter school lotteries, enroll in a GED credential program or find a pediatrician.

“I wish we had made a bigger difference faster but I understand it’s not realistic,” said Wendy Goldberg, leader of the initiative’s board.

Not all residents are convinced that the initiative will be effective. Some are frustrated with the pace. Tymus, who worked briefly for the initiative, recruited teenagers for a program on teenage pregnancy only to find it canceled. Still, she says she appreciates the voice it is giving residents.

Darlene Smith, a property manager in Kenilworth, said she still sees plenty of teenagers hanging out in the neighborhood with nothing to do.

“Relationship-building is slow work,” says Nicole Newman, the initiative’s community organizer.

But McKeever, the mother of four who now works with the after school programming, says after seeing the level of teenage involvement, especially among the boys, she’s more hopeful. Things feel less desperate in the neighborhood.

“I see the promise and the hope of the kids,” McKeever says. “Yeah, we have a lot of stuff going on but I see a lot of the changes.”

Andre Dubard, 45, whose son boxes in the afternoon program, said something’s long been missing in the neighborhood with so many fathers away. But he also believes change can happen “if we can catch the kids when they are small, young kids, and teach them the right way to do things.”

Salcido says one of her students told her that parents cannot see beyond the poverty and public assistance that have marked lives here for so many generations.

The children, this student said, can.

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Online:

DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative: http://dcpni.org

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Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khefling

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